Rabbi Yanky Horowitz’s Welcome Contribution

In the closing years of the Evil Empire, I accompanied a group of high-school seniors to Moscow and Leningrad, essentially to smuggle in sefarim, jeans, and cameras through which to sustain families of refuseniks in their spiritual and material needs. Preparing for the trip, I touched base with Rabbi Zelig Prag, who had made the trip a few months earlier with a group from Yeshiva of Flatbush. He told me of meeting a twelve year old boy who had made a siyum of mishnayos on shas, despite never having attended a Jewish school a day in his life. He had followed the trajectory of refuseniks a generation older, and acquired excellent Hebrew language skills before discovering Torah. Because he had those skills, many resources were available to him that allowed him to study Torah entirely on his own. Using a Kehati mishnah, the boy had taught himself shas.

Rabbi Prag at one point shouted into the phone. “Yitzchok, our generation of mechanchim will have to answer in Shomayim why we did not equip students with skills in Ivrit!”

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a generation later, finds an additional reason to decry the lack of Hebrew language skills in heimishe schools. Outspoken about the etiology of going off the derech, he argues that many kids who just don’t function in the classroom are victims of learning material by rote. While this method clearly does work for children with a much greater tolerance for drill and repetition than adults, it doesn’t work for all of them. Even when it does work, as children move up through the grades, they have not gained a skill set with which to approach the more complex material to which they are introduced, leaving them frustrated in facing texts they now find to be overwhelming and therefore perceived as irrelevant.

Yanky Horowiz was never one to shy away from the tough problems, whether as an acclaimed master mechanech and principal (Yeshiva Darchei Noam, Monsey), a specialist concerning off-the-derech kids (Project YES), or an outspoken advocate for victims of abuse. Both creative and courageous, any new idea of his is worth a hard look.

He has just rolled out a workbook that systematically teaches Hebrew language skills to primary school students of Chumash. It is meant to be used as an adjunct to – certainly not a replacement of – the traditional methodology of chadorim. Instead of teaching shoroshim and vocabulary as part of a separate Hebrew curriculum (which is not so likely to happen in most heimishe schools), it does so from within the flow of the pesukim of the parshah.

He observes that there have always been rabbeim who were more attuned to developing language skills in young talmidim, but they have had to fend for themselves, producing their own materials. Rabbi Horowitz’s series will both systematize the process and allow it to be accessed by any school or rebbi.

You can watch a video about it at his site and download sample pages. The workbook is the product thirteen years of work and the collaboration with a talented first-grade rebbi. Parents and teachers will want to take a look.

Remarkable (and perhaps it shouldn’t be!) was the reaction of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, the preeminent mechanech and baal mussar of the generation. Rabbi Horowitz asked him what to make of research-based educational techniques that also made sense, but were not part of our mesorah. Rav Wolbe answered, “Your mesorah, Rav Yaakov, is to take every educational tool that you know, and adapt it so that one more child can learn Torah. Our tradition is that we want our children to love learning…” (10 min. into the video)

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12 Responses

  1. Chareidi Leumi says:

    According to my wife, Rebetzin Ausband who heads the Yavne Teacher’s Seminary in Cleveland (associated with Telshe), insisted on speaking only Hebrew with her students. For some girls, it was very hard at first, but those who wanted to succeed in her curriculum adapted fairly quickly.

  2. Yosh says:

    I know this isn’t true for everyone, but I find a direct 1 to 1 link between my Hebrew skills and my learning skills. The more Hebrew I know, the better my learning gets. I never picked up workable language skills by osmosis through my learning well enough to translate much of anything, in Ivrit or Aramaic. Despite being a pretty smart guy, I have very poor language facility for whatever reason, and it kept learning from ever getting to the point where it was fun for me. A while back I spent a bit of time in Ulpan and am know working on my Hebrew skills on my own and it’s making a very substantial difference in both my learning and davening.

  3. Ori says:

    This looks potentially useful for Heterodox Jews as well, I’d like to show it to people in my synagogue. Where do we buy those workbooks, for how much, etc.?

    [YA – Good point. You may have to ask him [email protected] ]

  4. Pinchas Steinberg says:

    I once heard a parable that I think sums up the way children are unfortunately taught to daven in many mainstream yeshivas….
    Jake’s father is a big admirer of Russian literature and from the time Jake is a little boy, his father teaches him the Cyrillic alphabet. He teaches him to read and write the Russian language, he teaches him to pronounce the words with a perfect Russian accent. Unfortunately, Jake’s father does not teach him the actual Russian language; he does not teach him what the words actually mean. Jake is a quick study, and in his effort to please his father he immerses himself in his studies. By the time he is 12 years old he can fluently read the greatest Russian poets and has memorized many of their greatest poems. Jake’s father is so proud; after all, what could be more wonderful than the sound of his boy reciting the lines to Pushkin and Baratynsky in a perfect Russian accent? One day, Jake has an awakening. He realizes he does not enjoy reciting Russian poetry any longer. His father is perplexed; he asks his son, “You’ve spent your entire life reading these works of art! How can you not enjoy the beauty of Pushkin, the elegant prose of Chekhov?”

    Unfortunately, for many of our children, the alef-bet is Cyrillic. Pesukei D’zimra is literature in a foreign language. The fortunate ones will find the time to learn the meaning behind it all. They go out and set aside the time, on their own, often during lunch breaks and night seder, and teach themselves the meaning behind it all. The not-so-fortunate never learn. Some will go on to keep up the facade, and will keep mindlessly reciting the empty words 3 times a day. Others will drop the facade and everything that comes with it.

    Kol Hakavod to Rabbi Horowitz, undoubtedly his idea will save many neshamot. I hope and pray the yeshivas will accept his program.

  5. Joe Hill says:

    Is this Loshon Kodesh or Ivrit we are dealing with? The distinction may be subtle, yet it is critical.

  6. Yosh says:

    If you know Ivrit, 90% of it applies to Lashon haKodesh and visa versa.

  7. mevaseretzion says:

    The teaching of the Hebrew language is so important in the education of children, that according to the talmud (BB 21) and Rambam, one is allowed to switch teachers to one that is more knowledgable in Hebrew grammar.

    >Is this Loshon Kodesh or Ivrit we are dealing with?

    The distinction is technical, and really hits at a question of modern theory of linguistics. 100 years ago and beyond, changes in grammar were seen as corruptions, with grammars being viewed as proscriptive. Later theory maintains that any spoken language changes, and these are shifts, not corruptions. Grammars are essentially descriptive in that they describe how a language is used, and do not define how a society may use language. One generation’s mistake is another generation’s rule (See the history of the word “ask” in English, for example.)

    Modern Hebrew is unique in that it is a revived language. It started as a proscriptive grammar which takes its rules virtually completely from descriptive examinations (grammars) of Biblical Hebrew (I assume that is what you mean when you say L’shon Hakodesh; parenthetically, “Loshon Kodesh” or Loshon Hakodesh is grammatically incorrect — לשון is in construct form, vowelized with a shva, not a kamats). Although there are stylistic differences (using for example simple perfect as oppposed to the vav-consecutive imperfect), these are not changes or differences, but choices of use — generally using a subset of what is possible in BH to simplify MH. However, MH contains the same grammatical rules and thus the same possibilities as BH. A student of modern Hebrew will be able to fluently read the Bible, for example, and understand it at least on a basic, literal level (of course there are places where this will not be sufficient to acquire the meaning of the text).

    That said, certainly there are new words, foreign words, and new concepts present in MH. However, these are not changes, but additions. Once MH came to be used as a language by Israeli society, its grammar may shift as any living language’s does.

    Would you say that Shakespeare was not writing “English”? Would you say his English is ancient English as opposed to Modern? Clearly usages and grammars change over time, and any grammar, even one ressurected and therefore initially proscriptive as Modern Hebrew’s will immediately begin to shift and therefore become of necessity descriptive; however, this does not mean that learning one will not give you the ability to read and understand the other. One learns English to read Shakespeare, with an eye out for shifts in meaning and grammar.

    I find that usually those who distinguish between לשון הקודש and Hebrew do so with an agenda. It is implied that one is holy and one is not. By this measure, distinctions of holiness would have to be made between the Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim, since the style and grammar does shift between them, as well (where does the word של appear in the Bible, for example? Why not earlier?). Furthermore, the implication is that Mishnaic Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew, and later Responsum are all holy (לשון הקדש), but they are even more different from Biblical Hebrew than Modern Hebrew (think of all the Aramaic)! Modern Hebrew was an attempt to revitalize the Hebrew of the Bible.

    Hebrew’s holiness comes from what it was used to record (the word of God), and the people (and their purpose) who used it.

  8. mevaseretzion says:

    It is interesting to note that the very term לשון הקודש does not imply a holy language at all! That would be לשון קדוש — Lashon Kadosh. L’shon Hakodesh means literally, the language of holy things (texts).

  9. dr. bill says:

    yeshiva ketana of the 5 towns has a well established program (over a decade old) with extensive materials and requisite training for (a largely chassidic group of) rabbeim. R. Horowitz’s program appears to be a simplified version; the yeshiva ketana program is difficult/expensive to implement because it requires very skilled mechankhim. however, by third grade, my grandchildren have a good grasp of the language of the chumash, understand grammar in a rather non-tedious way, and can do a credible job reading a passuk from neviim rishonim on their own. the longer term benefits for learning mishna and gemara are significant. curious how these programs compare.

  10. Sassy says:

    Teaching Shorashim along with Chumash is not a new idea. They have been teaching girls in Bais Yaakov this way for years! I always wondered why boys didn’t learn Chumash this way.

  11. nadia says:

    Why don’t you understand that all the problems can be solved by speaking Hebrew all the time? Of course this would mean giving up the American dream for life in Eretz Yisrael, but if Jewish knowledge is more important than money you can’t beat it. All this writing and thinking is rediculous – action is what is needed – move here now! Every three year old here knows what his brachot and tefilla mean without having to have them explained, so high level learning at an older age is just a natural progression. And the amount and variety of learning opportunities here is beyond compare. How about it guys?

  12. Chochom b'mah nishtaneh says:

    Is there lesser incidence of Israeli children at risk? Based on the premise that children are at risk because of the lack of hebrew skills, there should a marked difference. Can that be substantiated?

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